". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Remedial Course: How Free Market Capitalism Works

To refresh our memories as to exactly how free markets operate on the level playing field of capitalism and government staying out of these matters, let us enter the Way Back Machine to the 18th century. We shall land in the era of what is popularly known in the history text books as the French and Indian War in the New World, and the Seven Years War in Europe. This is roughly 1754–1763, though the struggle of France and Britain to control North America and various parts of the Caribbean, India, etc. was nearly a century-long conflict all together. We are in 1762, in British occupied Havana. Several times during these wars the British also occupied Martinique and other of the French Antilles.

The British re-made the Cuban economy during the very short time they ran things, turning it into a highly competitive slave plantation agricultural mono-economy of sugar. Martinique, Guadeloupe, San Domingue were already sugar plantation powerhouse suppliers -- indeed, San Domingue was the greatest wealth producer in the New World, funding the excesses of the French royals and nobles until their own revolution.

Now to the government staying O-U-T of the free market. The Jamaican and other British sugar plantation power elites of the Caribbean lobbied with every resource they had the members of both houses of Parliament to force Britain to return these islands to Spain and France. These islands' sugar production was now also being shipped to England, creating such a supply that the price plummeted. This was equally true for rum of course, and on a somewhat smaller scale, for coffee and tobacco. Their quality tended to be higher as well, and this was NOT FAIR to the original English sugar barons of the Caribbean. This competition was eating their fine wines, fine homes, fine paintings, fine horses, fine finer finest everything because the competition made their product so cheap they were no longer achieving the magnificent fortunes they were accustomed to whipping out of the lives of endless coerced labor from Africa to their mostly absentee landlorism-administered Caribbean plantations.

In the Treaty of Paris Cuba was given back to Spain (in exchange for the Floridas -- which Andrew Jackson would take in turn in approximately another four decades), and so were the French Antilles returned to France in exchange for its North American (New France) territories.

That's how government makes an even playing field for the free market to do its business fair and square for the ultimate benefit of the consumer.

This was laid out with such clarity of detail at the New York Historical Society's exhibition, "Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn." We spent most of my birthday afternoon in it, breathless, taking notes like mad, since unlike most museum now, the NYHS still doesn't allow non-flash, digital photography. This exhibit is one of the results we're starting to see of considering the American, the French and the Haitian revolutions as sections of a single wave of historical movement instead of them being considered as separate events with little if anything in common, other than the desire for "liberty" ignited in the "citizens" in France, in an imitation of the real thing that was the "revolution' of the British middle North American Atlantic colonies.

This exhibit has many surprising items that perhaps we might not consider together, at first thought. The second floor galleries of the exhibit proper are many and dense with information and objects. However, there are deeply related off-shoots on the main floor, for instance, including the original written document of the 13th Amendment signed by Abraham Lincoln -- allowing for the final, long-resisted step in the consequences of the San Domingue revolution, recognition of the nation of Haiti by the United States. I admit to feeling a great deal, viewing this actual document on loan from the LOC.

Upstairs the second gallery, "Where the Empires Ended," begins with the various trades going on between the North Americans, particularly those from Rhode Island, with the focus on Paramaribo, Suriname and Haiti, in the late 17th and 18th century. We viewed "Sea Captains Carousing in Suriname," the first genre painting made by a North American, John Greenwood (1727 - 1792). You can take a look at it here.

It was as though we'd gone on vacation, threading our way through these dimly lit galleries, where the real light was focused only on these exceedingly well-chosen objects dramatizing the connections between the slave trade, slavery and trade generally in the New World, colonization and then revolution. Among other things on the main floor were slave badges, that were worn by southern slaves, dating from the 1820's to the latest dated 1860. That says everything about the connections among all these things. We did not have a full revolution here until the Civil War. That was the revolution that changed the way things were done. (Up to a point, at least, and not enough then either, as Slavery By Another Name made so clear.) We felt we'd gone someplace else.

Tired, but exhilarated, we stopped at the NYHS's very nice restaurant and bar (no television! no sports), for wine and appetizers before meeting K and C and P and K for dinner at La Paella. Our barista was very good looking, and an actor, of course, a young fellow born and bred in Yonkers. He asked to be put on da List. He had an audition for another television commercial yesterday -- he's been getting one or two commercials a month lately, so he's a happy man as well as personable, friendly and a very good barista.

It was pouring rain most of the day, but it felt soft -- like a day in the first week of April, thus the silvery rain light of afternoon, the hazy street light of after dark, and the shapes of bare branches of Central Park's trees made it all heart-breakingly lovely.

It was a lovely birthday, one that took us both far away from the classroom. Now, tonight, we all head uptown for salsa in da Bronx.


Foxessa said...

There were so many other things that I haven't touched on as the entry was too long as it stands.

Several of the exhibit galleries were devote to the West African slave trade to the New World. The stats put up in accompanying texts or on the audio tour gadgets things were made concrete, not theoretical, by the displayed objects. Period plans of slave ships, whose owners were proud of their carrying capacity, stood next to text that stated flatly, "There were 18,000 different slaving voyages from Africa in the eighteenth century. Of ever six people who crossed the Atlantic before 1800, five were African and only one European."

Foxessa said...

An edition of Louis XIV's Code Noir governing the trade, sale, treatment, etc. of slave, from 1685, was on display. There was also a digital light table edition so we could turn the pages, with French on one side, and translation on another.

One of the marked differences between the French Code Noir and the 'black laws' of the English is the French Code Noir had no restriction of marriage between 'black' and 'white.'

Foxessa said...

The deliberate exaggeration and sometimes outright lies of the illustrations and reportage of the violence on San Domingue during the wars of Emancipation and Revolution on the island was on display. The white babies on lances -- all that which did not happen.

More than ample horrors were committed, of course, and by white as much as black. But not displayed were the horrors of the "plantation battlefield" before the Revolution, that contributed no little to the uprising in the first place. Those horrors were committed on black bodies and psyches, sometimes by each other, but always by their white overseers and owners.

These illustrations are pure propaganda, which circulated for decades, provoking the American South in particular into paroxysms of hysteria over the very idea of emancipation.

These included plays like "The Revolutionary Philanthropist -- The Slaughter of Haiti," which were very popular both in France and the United States.

Foxessa said...

The origin of strike:

(which I first encountered in Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship )

In 1775 the Liverpool slave ship crews -- white -- violently protested the evils of the African slave trade by "striking" the topgallant masts of their slave ships.

Needless to say, I suppose, that their strike was violently put down by His Majesty's marines and troops, and the strikers were forcibly 'pressed to serve on the same ships they'd "struck."

Foxessa said...

Other items that particularly impressed me:

-- A recording of a self-emancipated African woman, run away from a Surinam planation, her words recorded by a Rhode Islander long ago. He characterized her as "A healer, deep in knowledge of African remedies and Koranic verses hiding in the port town."

-- Girodet's famous oil portrait of Jean Baptiste Mars Belley, borrowed from the Versailles Museum.

-- A confection model of the Versaille palace made all of sugar in a folk tradition of Mexico that dates back to the 15th century (this impressed me because it ecompassed in itself the horrible history of the New World that also was the greatest mixing of peoples and cultures immediately that the world had so far ever seen, and which has never since stopped -- shades of Charles. C. Mann's 1493!

-- an actual copy of John Gabriel Stedman's The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.

-- A copy of Addison's play Cato, which became a sacred text of the American Revolution, inspiring Patrick's Henry's infamous recitation of "Give me Liberty or Death!" in the Virginia House of Burgesses, concluding withthe faux self-stabbing with the letter opener of death!

-- The cover of Bob Marley and the Wailers album, "Survival," with a depiction of the layout of the infamous slave ship, Brookes.

Foxessa said...

Nor yet have I covered everything by any means.

For instance, I tended to skimp in the galleries that covered our War of Independence, which explored thoroughly the paradoxes in repeition of "freedom" and "slavery" as applied to the Founding Father diatribes and broadsides, while living from slave labor, because I've been immersed in this myself daily for going on two years now.

In Haiti, one of the most luxurious societies the world has ever known, tobacco stores had the carved or bronze figure standing outside, like we did here -- except instead of an Indian, he was a Negro. When the Revolution began, these figures, one of which is on the main floor, were provided with the red Phrygian / Liberty cap.

The research for the show, the advisors saw to it, was impeccable. Laurent Dubois was a primary advisor (his books are in the very nice NYHS gift shop, as well as C.L. R. James's essential book, The Black Jacobins). Many of the texts are in English, French and Kreyole.

This also meant that the emphasis was not on suffering, victimized slaves, or on the gorgeousness of French aristo excess, but on many groups of people, who came together, during a particular period, united in a view that Change must happen in their world. And that in large part this was due to the conditions on the borderlands, the outside, of the French and English empires, and the sea, carrying so much trade among them, conducted by those like the Rhode Islanders, though forbidden to do so by their mother empire, was the major route for the exchange and discussion of these ideas and discontents. And Africans and their descendants played a major role in all of it. This is expressed without preaching. It comes through the juxtoposition of authentic period historical artifacts and documents, arranged in chronological and regional order. It's brilliant really, one of the very best of many of the world class museum shows I've had the good fortune to take as much time as I wanted to go through, sometimes several times. Of course this is the Historical Society, not a museum per se, but the principles are entirely honored in the observance. It is a show of integrity, which so many that look at revolution, particularly our so-called revolution (which didn't happen until the Civil War), are not. This one highlights so much of the direction in the recent scholarship that we've been connected with for so long. That's exciting too.

On the second floor, the hall outside the exhibit galleries had several looping videos of the expressions for liberty and democracy, freedom from tyranny, that were Teinneman Square, Tahrir Square, Myanmar / Burma and others. Another gallery opening from this hall has an exhibition of the Civil Rights movement in New York.

Foxessa said...

Something else -- without preaching or being dogmatic at all -- this exhibit makes clear that from the beginning there were people who were not afraid to speak loudly and clearly from their moral, philosophical and religious principles that the slave trade and slavery were violations of all the laws of man and god.

Which again puts to the lie the favorite defense of the traders and politicians, including the saints of American independence, were "only products of their time" and thus cannot be criticized for buying and selling and owning slaves. There were many people in their time who knew differently and said so. And, black or white, worked to end it even though it was for so long a sisyphian task.

At the same time there is nothing simplified or dumbed down in the exhibit. It is an honest expression of the directions we find in the latest historical researches into all these matters, from whichever discipline.

Wait, there is an exception here, music was left out. Music traveled with the merchants and the sailors, music expressed the issues too. And music crossed all barriers as much as rum -- as did dance.

Foxessa said...

Ah, you who e-mailed about the Liverpool striking sailors"

I don't where our Marcus Rediker The Slave Ship is -- buried under the vast number of tomes we are currently consulting. But from my notes, taken by hand, from the accompanying text cards, I'm guessing that "white" came from there. The predominate number of sailors pressed for a slave ship were white, but of course there were black sailors, particularly as ordinary and able seamen. Everywhere it seems the sea was a place for freemen and those who were sharing the procedes of their labor with an owner could work, get advancement, buy themselves free, escape, even accumulate property. Particularly notable for me at least, in this regard was the War of 1812.

Not to mention the shipyards themselves, where so many of the most skilled craftsmen were freemen of color -- which free, of course in England all of them unambiguously were, at least after 1772, thanks to the Somersett Decision. The shipyards were booming, building for the African trade.

Which makes one wonder ... did that call on the facilities and labor at the height of the Trade have an affect on shipbuilding for other maritime trade? Was it quicker and easier to build one's ships for the China trade in, say, India? Not to mention the number of ships the Navy would always be needing, though Britain no less than Jefferson and Madison were often short-sighted about that!

Foxessa said...

To conclude finally, we made it a point to enter and exit by the "back door" of the NYHS -- where the statue of that brilliant thinker, writer and activist, Frederick Douglass, stands.

T. Clear said...

Happy birthday dear C.!

Glad you could spend it doing something you loved, with people you love!